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EDITORIAL: This potential bill is simply wrong for state

We are concerned -- as every citizen should be -- about a draft bill that may soon be considered by the Wisconsin Assembly.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and it essentially would allow government agencies to charge for time spent deleting confidential information from documents.

Known as "redacting," the process allows government agencies to blacken out names, or other information, that should not be viewed by the public, and/or the media.

There are several problems surrounding the process of allowing agencies to charge for this service.

First, it goes against a State Supreme Court ruling that prohibits charging redaction expenses from those who solicit information from the government.

The court case involved a records request made by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for information involving the Milwaukee Police Department and how it classified crime data.

The Journal Sentinel filed suit when the MPD demanded a $4,000 fee for redaction services. The case went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It ruled that under Wisconsin's open-records laws, custodians could only charge for reproducing, photographing, locating and mailing records.

In the Journal Sentinel case, the newspaper found that police had misreported thousands of violent crimes, failed to correct the problems and failed to disclose them. Those findings were later confirmed by a consultant hired by the city, but only after the newspaper released its findings.

Openness benefits all citizens, not just the media.

That brings up a second point -- cost of redactions. All records in Wisconsin are presumed open unless there is a specific statutory exemption. Generally the number of records requiring redaction for confidential reasons is minimal.

As taxpayers, we have already paid for government documents -- we pay the salaries and the benefits of the person who created them. It is not out of line to expect that public officials spend some of their time responding to requests from the public. As they say -- it's their job.

Thirdly, if redaction fees are allowed, every citizen should be concerned about the potential cost -- not in money, but in information. A change in the law could make it easy for custodians (government) to charge exorbitant fees to make it difficult for those seeking public records. At what point does the requestor (the public) get discouraged and simply walk away?

There are many components to making a successful democracy. High on the list is public scrutiny of government activities. It is almost essential in a system of checks and balances. We continually see examples where government is at its best when it is done in the open for all to see and analyze. Secrecy is the breeding grounds for corruption, crookedness, fraud and malfeasance.

Changing the law, and jeopardizing open records, would be too high of a price to pay; the change would surely go against the openness that is a trademark of Wisconsin.